Portland schools explore new paths to graduation

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PORTLAND — High school students across the city are learning about and evaluating education models that over the next few years will provide more avenues to graduation.

In February, the district was awarded a $5 million, multi-year grant from the Nellie Mae Foundation that will allow the district to implement a student-centered model of education at each of the city’s four high schools and Portland Adult Education.

The “Pathways to Success” initiative seeks to implement education models where students will be tested on their proficiency, rather than simply fulfilling credit requirements.

Students, teachers, school officials and parents are reviewing four student-centered learning models before new ones are chosen for Portland and Deering high schools. Casco Bay High School already uses an expeditionary learning model.

Models being considered are Asia Society, Big Picture Learning, Re-Inventing Schools Coalition and Johns Hopkins Talent Development.

The district recently approved a comprehensive plan framework that calls for tailoring teaching to individual needs, according to Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. 

“The goal is to create more pathways to graduation for our students,” said David Galin, chief academic officer for the district.

Though implementation of new learning models will be sped up thanks to the grant, the process has been under way for several years,  Galin said. Administrators and teachers have looked at different student-centered learning models and narrowed the list down to the four under review.

Presentations on the first two models – Asia Society and Big Picture Learning – were made in early April. Presentations about the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition and Johns Hopkins Talent Development models are scheduled for May 2 and 3.

On May 2, the public is invited to forums from 1:30-3:20 p.m., 5-6:15 p.m. and 6:30-7:45 p.m. in the cafeteria at Deering High School, 370 Stevens Ave.

After presentations of each model are complete and input from online surveys is analyzed, Portland and Deering high schools will select models to implement. Galin said this will allow the city to offer high school students more options as they decide which school to attend.

While each model under consideration is different, Galin said they all connect students to the community and real-world situations, while challenging them to show what they have learned in different ways.

“All of them ask students to demonstrate their learning in very authentic ways,” he said. “It’s our goal that graduation means something that can be clearly measured, that students have demonstrated their ability to know and do a core set of things to graduate.”

Deering  High School Principal Ira Waltz said students seem interested in the initiative.

“I think they’re welcoming the opportunity and really appreciate we’re receptive to their voices,” he said.

Waltz said he hopes the new learning model chosen for Deering will open up more extended learning opportunities for students, including courses during summer or at local colleges.

“My goal is to take what’s great here and expand and enhance it,” he said.

Portland High School Principal Debi Migneault said it is as important to engage students in the process as it has been to seek feedback from teachers.

“This will impact the daily schedule of the students and the opportunities available to them,” she said.

Migneault said she is looking forward to offering students more chances to learn through mentoring and internships in the community.

“We’re building on what we have that is working,” she said. “I think students can only benefit from this.”

Despite the enthusiasm of educators, some parents question the move.

Anna Collins, the mother of a kindergarten student, is critical of the shift in learning models and the Nellie Mae grant that is funding it. She said she has “yet to see clear-cut direction from the School Board on this.”

“As a parent I’m a little confused about who to turn to to determine if this is a good idea,” she said. “… As a parent it troubles me when we’re moving toward something that lacks clarity.”

Collins said she is skeptical that the models chosen will be beneficial to all students, and suggested a “school-within-a-school” approach to provide different options may work better and avoid lowering standards.

“I think our kids can do better than that,” she said. “I don’t think we’re so desperate we have to pass everyone.”

Galin, the chief academic officer, said the new models will do anything but “dumb down” the education Portland students receive. He compared showing proficiency to people taking a driver’s license exam.

“Some people pass on the first time, some people pass on the third time,” he said. “The test stays the same, it’s not dumbing it down.”

“We want all of our kids working up to a higher level and we know we can do it,” he added.

School Board Chairwoman Kate Snyder said the board will schedule a workshop in late May to discuss the initiative process and ask more specific questions.

Gillian Graham can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or ggraham@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @grahamgillian.

Sidebar Elements

About the paths

Descriptions of the “Pathways to Success” education models being considered by the Portland Public Schools, culled from the websites of organizations that have developed the models:

• Asia Society: The program focuses on developing college-ready, globally competent high school graduates. Students engage in inquiry-based instruction that promotes learning with understanding. It also provides opportunity for international travel and exchange; study of more than one language, including one Asian language; and internships and community service at internationally oriented business, cultural institutions and universities.

• Big Picture Learning: The model‘s mission is to provide “innovative, personalized schools that work in tandem with the real world of the greater community.” Students are expected to take responsibility for their own education and spend time in the community working with volunteer mentors. Students are not evaluated solely on standardized tests, and assessment criteria is individualized to each student. There are no tests or grades.

• Re-Inventing Schools Coalition: The program is based on a global curriculum where students are navigators and their work is judged by self, peers, teachers and business leaders. Under the model, teachers become facilitators and partners, students must demonstrate a higher level of mastery than traditional learning models and students move at their own pace.

• Johns Hopkins Talent Development: The model establishes small learning communities where students are supported by a team of teachers. Teachers have common planning time to address student needs and to take advantage of cross-disciplinary perspectives. Also included is an “acceleration” curricula that is challenging while simultaneously building basic skills to catch students up to their on-grade-level peers as quickly as possible.

— Gillian Graham